Travels with George: Africa

Travels with George: Africa


Paula and I just returned from a month-long journey to Africa. Traveling around parts of this enormous continent, one is constantly reminded of the primal nature of existence there. In parts of the countries we visited—South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia—day-to-day existence is much the same as it has been for generations and it was fascinating to observe the delicate balance Africa’s inhabitants must deal with in order to survive. Tribal loyalties and traditions versus the pull of modernity and the need to make a living exert constant pressure on every individual we met.

Our takeaway from every place we visited was that the people are, for the most part, optimistic that their young societies will evolve and prosper as democracies. Themes such as forgiveness and cooperation outweighed the extremes that could destroy these societies. And while the human landscape was always present on our journey, the bottom line was always focused on the wonderful birds and animals we were fortunate to see.

Here’s a bit of background on our experience. We covered a broad range of habitats from lush deltas to the driest of deserts, from grasslands to miles and miles of seemingly wasted, desiccated trees and shrubbery. The time we chose to visit was at the end of the dry season, where water is scarce and animals are concentrated near their source of existence. It was unreal to imagine that the dead landscapes we were seeing would, in a month’s time, be verdant grassland. The downside to our timing was that it was hot as hell!

The fact that it was over 100 degrees every day mandated a schedule that accommodated the midday burnout. We would rise around 5:30 a.m. and do game drives until noon, then back to camp for lunch and siesta until it cooled off. Our evening drives started around 5:00 p.m. We would search for game for a couple of hours and at sunset it became party time. I never imagined that at 6:00 p.m. every day the Land Rover would stop in a clearing and a bar would be set up in a matter of minutes. We would drink the traditional safari gin and tonics, yell the local toast “PULA,” eat kudu jerky and proceed to get loose for our dark night drives.

Some of the amazing animals we saw during our safari.

 

Rather than bore you with a list of the 40+ mammals we encountered, I will describe some of the indelible memories we created during our two weeks in the bush. It is critical to note that in the parks and reserves we visited, virtually all of the animals are habituated to the trucks and their human occupants. Our guide Malcolm Ainscough, who owns Bukela Africa Safaris and has spent the last couple decades in the bush, says that the vehicles are seen as non-threatening to both predator and prey. It was literally as if we were invisible! This fact allowed us to park within six feet of dangerous predators and observe their behavior without being threatening or threatened. We had rules for our behavior inside the Rovers: no loud voices, only khaki colors, and do not move or leave the vehicles.

So what were our most memorable encounters?

At Selinda Camp in the Linyanti Delta we were watching a pride of four lionesses and four of their cubs. After a few minutes, one of the lionesses began slowly walking toward our vehicle. She strolled literally three feet below my knee and laid down in the shade of our Rover. Needless to say, I was frozen in my seat waiting to be devoured. Within 10 minutes every one of the huge cats had sought out the shade of our truck. We were surrounded.
On the Chobe River we watched as a group of around 20 elephants crossed the river with their newborn young. The babies completely submerged between their huge mothers and used their little trunks as snorkels to breathe. The gentleness of the elephant mothers teaching their kids to swim was amazing. 
At 2:00 a.m. one morning we were awakened by the sounds of trees being stripped or ripped from the ground. Adjacent to our tent was a bull elephant destroying the vegetation not five feet from our bed, who was accompanied by the grunting and farting of a group of hippos that were settled for the night in the lagoon by our camp. 
 

In a game reserve adjacent to Kruger Park on a night drive we located a hyena pack that was sheltering a litter of newborn pups. In the dark, we watched as the agitated mothers herded their young away from the mysterious spotlight that illuminated their den. In the Namibian desert we enjoyed our evening cocktails watching a herd of mountain zebras and oryx enjoying the watering hole in front of our room. Leopards are generally shy creatures most often seen at night. We were fortunate one morning to come across a female with her young cub moving through a dried riverbed in search of impala. We followed them for almost an hour, and at one point saw the cub climb a tree in an attempt to catch an eagle owl. The owl easily escaped and the cub damn near fell out of the tree.

I hope these small illustrations give you some sense of the wonder we experienced during our African journey. Paula and I feel genuinely privileged to have been able to visit such remote and unspoiled parts of this world. Credit must be given to Malcolm, our guide and teacher for the two weeks in the bush. If you want the ultimate African experience, Malcolm is your man (www.bukela-africa.com).